In “We Take Care of Our Own,” New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote last month about conflicting world views of nationalism and globalism. To these, he added the notion of moral particularists and moral universalists, borrowing ideas from an essay by NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt published in The American Interest.
Paraphrasing, Brooks describes the nationalist/particular world view: “They’ve built moral systems on loyalty and support for their own kin and fellow citizens. These bonds are not based on some abstract social contract. They are intimate bonds, born out of shared kinship, history, geography and common understandings of right and wrong.”
The globalist/universal world view, which Haidt considers a recent phenomenon, includes those who “value the emancipated individual above the cohesive community. They value, or at least try to value, self-expression, social freedom and diversity. Their morality is not based on loyalty to people close to them; it’s based on a universal equality for all humans everywhere.”
Both men see the rise of Donald Trump as predictable pushback to decades of relentless advance by the globalist/universalist view. Engaging daily with Trump supporters unmoved by my moral arguments against their candidate, I feel the divide.
I shun labels, but see myself well into the globalist/universalist end of Haidt’s moral spectrum. If the rise of “Trumpism” is a reaction, then I’m an active player in what’s happening. While not ready to shed my values, I wonder if I can help ease tensions by finding the frontal boundary where systems collide and storm clouds billow.
Prophetic, since I’m now at the epicenter of such a clash – the Islamic mosque and cemetery conflict I wrote about last week in Newton County, Georgia.
In public meetings and social media exchanges, I’ve watched with horror and sadness as neighbors vent hate, fear, and intolerance towards our would-be Muslim neighbors. It’s tempting to see protesters as intellectually or morally inferior, but I’m reminded how Brooks sought to reconcile:
“The fact is that both mind-sets have their virtues. The particularists emphasize the intimate love and loyalty that is the stuff of real community. The universalists are moved by injustices anywhere, and morally repulsed by inaction and indifference in the face of that suffering.”
I didn’t read Haidt’s essay “When and Why Nationalism Beats Globalism” until the mosque controversy flared.
In his own words, and those of other social psychologists, Haidt paints a non-judgmental picture of the nationalist psyche and authoritarian reactions elicited in the face of perceived threats to those values. He’s a bit harsh on the globalists, but I can take it.
His essay made me be more empathetic; it’s caused me to shun delusions of moral superiority and wonder how I can help find a peaceful path forward. “Winner takes all” is not going to cut it.
I can’t turn away from the morality that has guided me from an early age. My affinity for these words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tells me that:
“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”
Yet, there are inescapable truths. Civil rights marchers were beaten, fire hosed, arrested, lynched, and murdered. Two of the greatest examples of peaceful, non-violent protest, Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi both died violent deaths by assassination.
My overriding memory of world history class would be the changing global map, as conquering tribes shaped the landscape. With no attempt at sequence, Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Huns, Vandals, Greeks, Romans, Vikings, Angles, Normans, and Saxons come to mind.
Was it wrong for early Americans to uproot and destroy native North American civilizations in the interest of white European expansion? Or, was it wrong of native tribes not to kill the settlers when they had the chance? “Right” is whatever the moral system prioritizes – be it peace or survival.
I’ve not done justice here to the logical argument made by Haidt in his essay. I urge everyone to read it carefully, no matter where you see yourself in this clash of ideals. It made me more conscious of the choices I make and the implications for others.
Yet, choose I must. Without naïveté, I embrace Dr. King’s message understanding the risks and consequences. His statement is conditional: “If we are to have peace on Earth…” He was telling us this is a choice.
He was absolutely right. Clinging to race, tribe, class, or nation as the deepest root of identity and the sum of our morality means accepting conflict and war as never-ending. It is resignation to the inevitable that all victory is fleeting and our conqueror is over the horizon.
So, how do we coexist, my globalist and nationalist family, friends, and neighbors? Experience says: reject simple binary choice. As I acknowledge the rational thinking of nationalism — but strive for something more universal — I need others to believe we can preserve self-interests and yet reach for higher ideals. At worst, we must see each other as reasonable people whose priorities are rooted in moralities that conflict, but also overlap.
As humans strive to understand our world, reality is ever-evolving. In the field of quantum physics, reality isn’t what it seems to be. Is this desk where I sit now matter or energy? Is it as solid as it feels, or mostly empty space as physicists tell me? Can it be both?
Binary thinking limits understanding. It thwarts breakthroughs.
So, while I embrace the instructive duality Haidt describes, I hold to the idea of something more… a touch point where globalists and nationalists can find unity and shared purpose. I don’t know what that is, but I choose to believe it exists.
To survive with my people, but to also know peace with all peoples – who wouldn’t aspire to that?